Neil W. Blackmon and Zack Goldman
The United States pulled a “deja vu all over again” in Yogi Berra’s backyard by beating Turkey 2-1 in a World Cup Send-Off Series match for the second straight cycle, this time at a sold-out Red Bull Arena.
The result was positive. Turkey are a good, but not great team- probably among the better teams not to be in the Finals in two weeks. But the match very well could have ended with a different scoreline had Turkey punished the US for various defensive errors, and there are certainly still questions moving forward about position battles that four years into a World Cup cycle, or fourteen days before a World Cup opener- whichever measuring stick you prefer-the US would rather already have sorted out.
Normal “five thoughts” review with Zack Goldman (@thatdamnyank on Twitter and again, one of the brightest young minds in American soccer and a must-follow on Twitter for the World Cup) guesting to talk Jermaine Jones and the defense.
1) The US is right to be encouraged by Jozy Altidore’s day.
And I write this fully aware (and willing to defend) what The Yanks Are Coming tweeted yesterday- that Altidore worked hard, but so did Emile Heskey for England.
The gravamen of any criticism leveled at Altidore when he’s hit stretches in his career where he’s struggled to score (think Jurgen Klinsmann’s arguments for keeping him sidelined early in the cycle) is that Altidore allows the goal drought to permeate every other element of his soccer. He pouts, doesn’t fight for 50/50’s, forgets his hold-up responsibilities, taking on defenders when the hold and distribute would do, and doesn’t function as “the first defender.” When Altidore is scoring, the rest of his game tends to be better.
In fact, it was his inability to perform his other tasks, much more than his inability to score goals, that landed him on the Sunderland bench in favor of the fallen star Connor Wickham late in the Barclay’s Premier League campaign. “Jozy has to understand that there is more to being a forward than scoring goals,” manager Gus Poyet said after the change. “He has to hold the ball up, pass the ball in good spaces, work hard. The goal will come.” So as to reject any notion this was coach-speak designed to protect Altidore’s confidence- Poyet was consistent about this prior to benching the American, praising Altidore’s effort in a game against Newcastle in February where the forward did not score but had an influential hand in Sunderland’s victory.
And so yesterday, where Altidore held the ball instead of playing the hero and taking on three defenders from a poor angle on the opening goal:
And charging at the goalkeeper in the 94th minute, are promising. The US need Altidore to work for 90 plus minutes. Also promising was his dash towards a fifty-fifty ball late in the first half that earned Clint Dempsey a chance (pair of chances?) in a rather bizarre sequence that could have resulted in a penalty and a red card but instead simply made Dempsey look a bit silly. Beyond these instances, Altidore held the ball well, and generally was aggressive and engaged the defenders 1 v. 1 when opportunities presented themselves. Yes, he missed a sitter in both halves, firing into the side netting once and into the goalkeeper’s stomach another time. But if he plays with that effort in all aspects, the goals will come.
For what it’s worth, Turkish manager Fatih Terim chose Altidore after the game as one of the US’ most impressive players, saying he “is the type of forward centerbacks don’t like to deal with”, and if nothing else, as Graham Parker also wrote here, this is a start.
In the build-up to this World Cup, Altidore has been treated with skepticism and heavy-handed criticism in the US media. This is both positive and negative.
On the one hand, the criticism of Altidore represents the ever-increasing reluctance of the US soccer media to halt its historic treatment of star players with “kid gloves.” That’s important to growing a footballing culture and improving performance; it is, at base, the definition of constructive criticism that so many have now examined the attackers talent and demanded he play soccer worthy of it.
On the other hand, this tongue in cheek tweet explains:
so the US needs Altidore to win long balls, hold off defenders, and also be a ruthless goalscorer who can create his own chances? k got it
— Ryan O'Hanlon (@rwohan) June 1, 2014
There is room for nuance. There is room for Emile Heskey, holding so Dempsey, Diskerud, Bradley, Fabian Johnson, whoever can get up the field, support and score. There is room for yesterday.
2) Brad Guzan is ready when called on. And the US goalkeepers, believe it or not, are somewhat “due” to play up to their high level at a World Cup.
Guzan was spectacular in the second half yesterday as the US defense struggled around him, surrendering several quality and close chances and ultimately, a penalty, after another giveaway in a horrid position, that resulted in Selçuk İnan scoring in the 90th minute- one Guzan nearly stopped. We’ll address the defense in a moment with Zack Goldman, but about the goalies.
As high quality as the US goalkeepers have been for two decades, you can count the dominant performances by American keepers at the World Cup on one hand.
Brad Friedel against South Korea in 2002.
Brad Friedel against Mexico in 2002.
Tim Howard against England in 2010.
Howard, to be fair, was brilliant in a Confederations Cup and was suffered injury in the England match, one that clearly affected his play the rest of the tournament. But he probably should have stopped the near-post Boateng strike (where he was off his line) in the Ghana match regardless, and he’d be the first to tell you that.
It was nice, then, friendly or no, for the US to see both goalkeepers have great campaigns entering the World Cup finals and play well, thus far, in the Send-Off matches. The US may have gotten the Group of Death draw, but history tends to smile on talent and the US keepers are due for a massive World Cup. If, for whatever reason, Guzan is called on, he’ll be ready.
3-5) Now the defense. I ask the questions, Zack gives the answers:
TYAC: 1) Not much written about Geoff Cameron’s afternoon. I suppose you could argue, as Jon Levy told me after watching the match live, that (astonishingly), John Brooks was the US’ best defender yesterday? What were your thoughts on Cameron? The US back four in general?
“I’ve heard the argument that Brooks was the most sound defender against Turkey yesterday and I don’t really buy it. He settled into his role nicely for reasonably long stretches, but everything I’ve read seems to be ignoring the fairly stark reminders of his problems with awareness and decision-making at the international level. The 51st minute, for example, is microcosmic of Brooks’ defensive tendencies with the national team. I’ll set the scene: Turkey plays a ball over the top to Ahmet Ilhan. Brooks does well to catch up to the ball’s trajectory, sets his feet and is in prime position to play the ball out of a dangerous spot with his head. Instead, he is caught between two minds, attempts to trap the ball, and loses it to Ilhan, who rushes toward goal. After making ground on the Turkish midfielder, the intelligent play is for Brooks to cut down the space between him and Ilhan at an angle (without diving in) to avoid a dangerous chance; however, the young center-back instead runs away from the ball, even though Turkey’s most dangerous option is several yards behind the play and Fabian Johnson and Geoff Cameron are both filling the space adequately in expectation of that ghosting run.
Brooks’ indecision here not only leads to an opportunity, it keeps a chance alive and offers a shot on goal as the first option for the attacker. Naturally, this is only one brief phase of play. My point, though, is that this moment isn’t just an isolated foible or an occasional inclination toward indecision—it’s indicative of a shakiness at a certain pace of play that has showed up in every single performance in a US shirt. That’s a shakiness that will almost certainly get punished with greater frequency, efficiency, and ferocity in a World Cup group with Ghana, Germany, and Portugal.
I should round out my thoughts on Brooks by emphasizing that I picked the most patent of several shaky moments during his half of play, but that he also had a lot of positives yesterday. His physical tools are incredible and he was far more engaged with the rest of the back-line—that is to say, he covered a lot of people’s mistakes, as a good center-back does—than I’ve seen in the past. These are problems that can (and, hopefully, should) get ironed out with more caps, but it’s a dangerous game to throw those issues into a World Cup.
Compared to Cameron, it’s no contest for me. Geoff’s biggest weakness is organizational at this point—and it’s why I would have loved the partnership with Besler (a fantastic organizer) to develop over time. Clearly, only so much chemistry can be built in these next two weeks before Ghana, but over the last week, we saw 135 minutes of very assured, professional work from Cameron. His distribution was typically great and despite getting burned on it by a referee’s decision early in the first half against Turkey, his closing speed with an opponent’s back to goal may be the best we’ve ever seen from an American. This is the guy you want playing help defense against athletic wingers—and especially athletic wingers in Brazilian heat and humidity. I’m totally sold on his individual ability—now it’s down to whether that ability is hamstrung by having to carry a pair of fullbacks (whomever they may be) that haven’t yet put in a consistent shift.”
I think that hits on a more panoptic, but equally valid point about formations. All 4-4-2 diamonds are unique (pun fully and richly intended). The job of the defensive midfielder in each isn’t always playing Claude Makélélé (as I’ve often heard it described loudly in bars) or Sergio Busquets… or Esteban Cambiasso… or so on. Jones’ role for the USMNT is as much to diagnose how to limit liability and best change his role moment-to-moment to shield his back-line as anything else. His role is a flexible one—and while Jones is probably the most unfairly pigeonholed American player, that only holds up to a point. When you play Jermaine Jones, you do know that the leash, at some point, is likely to come off and there may not be the same positional awareness and conservatism that you get with a Kyle Beckerman. That’s a curse organizationally in many ways, but it can also be a boon as Jones’s “all-over-the-placeness” has paid dividends several times this cycle.
Editor’s Note: If there was a musical way of explaining how Jones and Beckerman play the “6” differently- it’s this- Jones is Metallica “Seek and Destroy”;
Beckerman is Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge over Troubled Water.”
Ok. Moving on.
A lot of that probably doesn’t change too terribly much in whichever formation you play Jones, but it’s deeply evident (and scary) in a diamond because he’s in effect the shielding force or last instrument of containment before your back-line. When he’s not calibrated properly with the rest of the formation, it can be a major liability—and it showed in how much space there was between the defense and midfield yesterday, and how much real estate was afforded to Turkey in very dangerous central areas.
It’s unclear to me how that changes once you play better teams. We may need a player with Jones’ engine and boldness in that spot instead of someone like Beckerman who is more content to play within the typical confines of that role. Klinsmann, however, may also find that Jones’ “brilliant” first half defending yields a few more goals once you have Toni Kroos or Raul Meireles on the end of those chances 25 yards from goal.
And finally, TYAC: 3) Outside of some quality step-up and emergency defending in the first half hour– Timothy Chandler struggled inverted on the left, offering little getting forward and looking lost cutting in defensively to cover. I know you have said Beasley worries you. Does Chandler concern you even more? Betting my lunch money Beasley starts Saturday in Florida, and he should. After all, you still get to “invert” Fab Johnson (on his better foot anyway) with Beasley out there, but you don’t get caught out as much. (You may get worked far post…)
“I never thought I’d say it, but Chandler concerns me even more than Beasley. With DaMarcus, you know his technical limitations at the position. There’s a ceiling to his 1v1 defending and his ability to make defensive plays from a disadvantageous position is limited (when he’s beat, he’s beat). He’s not a natural defender—and we all know that. Somehow, though, yesterday convinced me that Timmy Chandler may be an even bigger liability despite having all of the natural defensive prowess Beas lacks. There are moments when Chandler seems lost, moments where he seems like he’s running on empty—and worst of all, moments where both of those are combined. In a group like this, it can be harrowing to think of Beasley as your primary option at fullback (and you thought Bornstein was scary), but given the choice between taking your chances getting beat by a talent issue or a performance issue, I’m going talent every time.”
Follow @yanksarecoming on Twitter as we get closer to USA vs. Ghana. Reach Neil W. Blackmon via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.